Low pay forces anti-union Maximus call center workers to strike
Public workers contracted out to Maximus went on strike last week. Above, workers at the Hattiesburg Call Center. | Will Stribling/mbponline.org

TAMPA, Fla.—How do you choose between going to the hospital for needed regular medical treatment for a chronic condition and buying food for yourself and your family?

That’s the dilemma Katherine Charles, a bilingual call center worker in Tampa, Fla., for a top federal contractor, Maximus, faces when she needs health care.

“It’s a struggle,” Charles said during a Zoom press call with other workers, Communications Workers President Claude Cummings, and Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, a native with a load of family members in Hattiesburg, Miss., site of one of the call centers.

“I have to decide if I have to take myself to the hospital or if we can eat,” Charles added. “I have to see the doctor every three months. But I haven’t been for four years” because the company’s insurance won’t pay for it. “And I can’t put my two children on the [company] health care plan because I can’t afford it. They’re on Medicaid.”

Every day, she adds, she helps applicants get health care “with zero co-pays and zero deductibles,” but Charles can’t get it for herself. If not for living with her parents, they’d be homeless.

As a result of that dilemma and the low pay she gets, Charles was one of hundreds of Maximus workers, all of them organizing with the Communications Workers, who walked off their jobs for a one-day strike on November 9 at eight call centers around the U.S. More would have done so, Charles said, had not Maximus intimidated them.

“I understand they’re afraid because Maximus wants to retaliate,” which is illegal under labor law, she noted. “But they’ll respect us more if we have more of us.”

The walkout by the workers, mostly women of color like Charles, was so extensive that centers in both Hattiesburg and Bogalusa, La., had to shut, shunting callers elsewhere. “There was a sea of red,” the color of CWA shirts, said Hattiesburg worker Audrianna Lewis, who moderated the Zoom press conference.

Said another worker, “The walkout will disrupt a lot of people from” immediate answers about “health insurance. We didn’t want to do that. We were forced to do that.”

The federal Department of Health and Human Services pays Maximus $6.6 billion over nine years to have its workers handle calls and arrange care under Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges, or both.

The firm gets most of its revenue from the feds, and Democratic President Joe Biden has made it very clear that he demands federal contractors, as well as federal workers, not only get paid living wages but get the right to organize. Maximus’s president, Bruce Caswell, who earns $22 million a year, adamantly refuses to obey.

Sits at desk demeaning workers

Caswell “doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal is coming from” as he sits behind a desk and ignores and demeans his workers, adds Patricia Berry, a Maximus call center worker from Bogalusa, La.

“And we get crumbs,” said Charles.

“Despite being ‘essential’ workers during the coronavirus pandemic and providing essential services, they haven’t gotten a raise in more than two years,” added CWA President Cummings. They want “better wages, affordable health care and to get out of poverty.”

Which led the workers to strike, right at the height of “open season” when thousands of people every week call to sign up for Medicaid or the ACA.

The workers struck for minimum pay of $25/hour, recognition of their right to organize and their vote for CWA, and against Maximus’ labor law-breaking, formally called unfair labor practices.

“And we’re not certain at the end of every day if we’ll have a job” the next morning “because we have no job security,” said Charles.

Maximus has already been found guilty of breaking labor law at least once by the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board and other complaints are pending. They include retaliatory layoffs for speaking out about racial disparities and for union support, offering severance pay if workers shut up, and threats of firings and call center closures.  All are illegal under labor law.

The strike isn’t the first time the Maximus workers tried to hold the Democratic Biden administration to its promises about mandating federal contractors pay their workers living wages and recognize their right to unionize.

CWA previously sent Hattiesburg worker Lewis to D.C. to present the union’s investigative report about Maximus to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “I put the report in his hands,” said Lewis, who moderated the Zoom press conference, “acknowledged its receipt, said he was reading it and promised to follow up,” she added.

Becerra’s agency includes the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which actually awards the call center contract to Maximus. Thus, Becerra has the power and the leverage to demand Maximus obey Biden’s order to federal contractors—or else.

Berry added she’s described the Maximus situation to staffers for Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the upper chamber’s longest and strongest defender of workers. In a video on the Zoom call, they added strong support from Abrams, the Georgia voter registration activist and two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee there—and a Hattiesburg native.

The report detailing Maximus’s abuses is at https://cwa-union.org/sites/default/files/2023-10/20230114_1_800_bad_jobs.pdf. Video of the Zoom press conference is at https://vimeo.com/883052713/14609e7a77.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.